My first roommate experience did not go smoothly. I moved into the dorm of a small Bible college, expecting my roommate to be like me — studious, organized, liking all things pink — but she was the opposite. Gretta was a social butterfly who loved to talk and laugh (more than study). She woke up 10 minutes before class and still made it (almost) on time. And she brought a bedspread made of t-shirts from all her high school camps and sporting events.
Our major differences in personality and style created a lot of friction that first year. Thankfully, we came to appreciate one another’s differences and experienced positive growth as a result. The strong friendship we were able to form, despite conflicts along the way, carried us through as roommates the next three years and created a lasting bond.
During the decade following college, I lived with a variety of roommates. And I’ve praised the benefits of living with people. You save money, gain companionship, and practice valuable life skills like cooperation and flexibility. Plus, it’s just more fun doing life with other people.
But what happens when — like Gretta and me — you don’t hit it off? Or your habits or personalities rub each other the wrong way?
What happens is … life.
Working through conflict
From my experience — having a dozen different roommates over 10 years and now being married to one roommate for 10 — the struggles are similar. Living in close proximity with another human naturally creates frustrations and conflicts. (“She never takes out the trash.” “He forgot to pay that bill.” “She didn’t put the scissors back where they belong.”)
What can you do if you’re experiencing roommate friction? Try these three tips to practice better community:
1. Keep short accounts.
In several of my living arrangements, one or more of us roommates allowed frustrations to build up — like shaking a Coke can — until they exploded into a nasty argument. When a person you’re living with regularly does something that bothers you, it’s healthy to address it. Some of my best home environments involved regular “house meetings” where we could get small offenses off our chests.
One time a housemate told me I could borrow her laundry detergent whenever I was in need. In the busyness of life, I borrowed too frequently without replacing the detergent. This was something she needed to address with me, and our weekly house meeting (which also involved popcorn and hot cocoa) was a non-threatening way to bring it up. I apologized, bought her next box of soap and we moved on.
A “weekly review” of some kind can provide an opportunity to connect and discuss ways to make the home life better. Having a forum to discuss issues respectfully helps each person feel heard.
2. Invite feedback.
While asking for ways you can improve yourself may feel scary, roommates are the perfect people to consult. One woman I know periodically asks her roommate (who is also a close friend) for feedback. For instance, is there anything she should be working on, behavior that’s off-putting or attitudes that are out of line? “It’s a hard thing to do, but worth it,” she says. “I’d rather preempt being gossiped about or having people avoid me because I’m annoying, selfish or clueless.”
After I got over my initial bumps in the road with Gretta, she helped me see how my task-oriented nature was a barrier to relationships. In striving to get good grades, I was missing out on some of the beautiful social opportunities my college experience afforded. I learned from her that it was OK to leave my studies for a few hours to go have coffee with a friend, because ultimately people are more important than tasks.
Through the years I’ve had some of my most difficult, and most authentic, conversations with roommates. Living with others is a valuable way to gain insight about yourself and work on problematic behaviors. (Lisa Anderson offers some great advice for giving and receiving feedback here.)
3. Make the first move.
You may not be able to control your roommate’s behavior, but you can control your own attitude and reactions. Instead of focusing on the ways your roommate is falling short, think about how you can be a better roommate and take the first step.
At the end of our first semester, when we still hadn’t made much progress in our friendship, Gretta did something really kind. During finals week, she invited me to go out to dinner with her and her friends. When we came back to the dorm room that night, we stayed up late talking about things that really mattered. That was the start of a beautiful friendship.
The beauty in relationship
After four years rooming together, Gretta and I joked that we were probably the closest thing to a spouse the other had experienced — which was about right. Doing life together day after day allowed us to really get to know one another. We knew each other’s routines, quirks, habits and stressors. When I was having a severe autoimmune reaction, Gretta called and talked to the doctor for me. When Gretta had a 20-page paper to write in one night, I helped her organize her thoughts and edited the finished project.
As we worked through conflict and learned to love each other, our relationship became highly valuable to us both. After college, we remained close friends and even recently wrote a book together. Not long ago, we were talking about how amazing it is that God brought us together as roommates all those years ago with this in mind. Although our roommate experience got off to a rocky start, God used the friendship we formed to not only bless us, but also to encourage many others. Making peace with my roommate was one of the best things I ever did.
Copyright 2020 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.